In chapter 15, after his adventure hopping, Jack London stayed with a husband and wife in a poor section of Maidstone. He described the woman as The Sea Wife, from Rudyard Kipling’s poem by that name, and suggested that she and her husband were perfect examples of the hearty stock of human beings—the English—that had colonized territories the world over. Some interpret the metaphor of The Sea Wife established in Kipling’s poem as being specifically Queen Victoria, but since she wasn’t the only queen to oversee the expansion of the empire, I interpret The Sea Wife as being England herself.
Strangely, though Jack London told us the man’s name, Thomas Mugridge, he never gave us the woman’s name. She represented for him a reflection of England, the mother of a great sea-going people. He learned that, indeed, Mrs. Thomas Mugridge had children in different parts of the world, some in service to Great Britain. In 1902 the British Empire was referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” That had previously been said of the Spanish Empire. But the loss of the Spanish Armada in 1588 during an attempted invasion of England was such a set-back in Spain’s efforts toward global expansion that they never regained their former glory, and Great Britain became the dominant naval force in the world.
Jack London spoke of The Sea Wife’s offspring—the English people—as stern, capable, indefatigable, creative, and good, and he lamented the condition in which he found them. He wondered if they would go on as a great people or if they were ultimately doomed to failure and the abyss.
I find the author’s view of the poor of London as expressed in the book complicated, but perhaps only because I am used to people holding back their opinions for fear that others will come down on them for being unkind or unthinking. In earlier chapters, he had said, “And day by day I became convinced that not only is it unwise, but it is criminal for the people of the abyss to marry.” Now this is in a context of his describing that most had no hope of anything better in a time when too many human being vied for too few jobs and resources. With the horrors he’d seen in the East End he was of the opinion that no child should be born into such conditions. I believe that is why he made the statement, though that isn’t exactly clear from the writing.
In chapter 14, in reference to the vagrants who traveled by the thousands to pick crops in Kent, he referred to the poor in this way: “And out they come, obedient to the call, which is the call of their bellies and of the lingering dregs of the adventure-lust still in them. Slums, stews, and the ghetto pour them forth, and the festering contents of slum, stews, and ghetto are diminished. Yet they overrun the country like an army of ghouls, and the country does not want them. They are out of place, as they drag their squat, misshapen bodies along the highways and byways, they resemble some vile spawn from underground. Their very presence, the fact of their existence, is an outrage to the fresh, bright sun and the green and growing things. The clean, upstanding trees cry shame upon them and their withered crookedness, and their rottenness is a slimy desecration of the sweetness and purity of nature.”
That’s certainly not nice. But was it true? It was what Jack London saw. Did it mean that he had revulsion and contempt for them, that he thought of them as malevolent and unredeemable, or did it mean that he was horrified by what had become of human beings, creatures he held in high regard? Throughout the narrative, I’ve found expressions of his outrage at what he’s found, but I’ve also found great compassion. Just because I might walk across the street to avoid a filthy street person who is ranting at passersby, doesn’t mean I hate that person and wish harm upon them.
In the last few stanza of Kipling’s “The Sea Wife” I find a bitter tone.
Her hearth is wide to every wind
That makes the white ash spin;
And tide and tide and ‘tween the tides
Her sons go out and in;
(Out with great mirth that do desire
Hazard of trackless ways,
In with content to wait their watch
And warm before the blaze);
And some return by failing light,
And some in waking dream,
For she hears the heels of the dripping ghosts
That ride the rough roof-beam.
Home, they come home from all the ports,
The living and the dead;
The good wife’s sons come home again
For her blessing on their head!
Of course interpretations of the poem will and should vary. I hear the poet suggesting the English people have been mere fodder for the building of the British Empire, and that the good and noble men who went forth into the world to do England’s work remained stalwart to a fault.
—Alan M. Clark
Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688